Emanuel Ax at Benaroya: From thorny to daring to magical

Emanuel Ax
Seattle Times

By Melinda Bargreen

An excited audience brought back the concert pianist for several encores on Sunday, March 11. His program included Aaron Copland (Piano Variations), Haydn (Andante with Variations in F Minor), Beethoven ("Eroica" Variations) and Schumann ("Symphonic Etudes").

A whole afternoon of "theme and variations" music: At first glance, this didn't seem like the most scintillating concept for a piano recital.

But by the time Emanuel Ax played the triumphant finale of Schumann's "Symphonic Etudes," the ecstatic audience was calling him back for encores so vigorously that the Benaroya Hall houselights finally were raised to signal "time to leave."

This gives you some idea of the remarkable intelligence, interpretation and artistry with which Ax presented his program of Aaron Copland (Piano Variations), Haydn (Andante with Variations in F Minor), Beethoven ("Eroica" Variations) and the aforementioned Schumann. He came out swinging, so to speak, with the thorny and acerbic Copland work — in a considerably more dissonant vein than the folksy Copland of "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring." Ax played the Copland variations with such probing finesse, however, that he made the audience really listen, and ignited an enthusiastic response.

It was the seldom-programmed Haydn work, understated and modest, that was perhaps the afternoon's most revelatory performance. Originating in a different harmonic universe than the Copland, the Haydn was given an intimate, personal reading that reminded the listener why Ax has been called the least percussive of pianists. His touch is amazing. The keys are not so much struck as sighed upon — moved as if by a breath. There is no sense of fingers or hammers or material mechanisms: the note simply materializes and floats in the air. I have no idea how he does it.

The Beethoven was downright jolly, its familiar theme (which would later become more famous when recycled as the theme of the "Eroica" Symphony finale) with the dramatic dynamic contrasts emerging in a bravura performance. Ax produced daring, athletic interval leaps and brought out the innate humor of the score with its sudden changes in volume.

Ax's performance of the Schumann "Symphonic Etudes" included (as he announced from the stage) three additional movements besides the original theme and 12 variations (the work has a rather complicated publication and performance history). His reading was remarkable for its emotional range: The various pieces sounded beseeching, wistful, furious, nostalgic, and finally triumphant. There was plenty of firepower, but what lingers in the memory was the array of delicate filigree effects and the brilliant contrasts Ax was able to create at the keyboard.

A prolonged ovation drew him back to the stage for two encores: "Pagodes" (from Debussy's "Estampes") and the first "Valse Oubliée" of Liszt. Both were magical.